Friday, January 10, 2014

Like rolling waves

This week, I have been experimenting with "bonk" running. This wasn't entirely intentional — basically, I got caught up in what I was doing during the day, skipped lunch, and then headed out in the late afternoon for a run without snacks. Monday was eight miles of one long climb and descent, running on what felt like the fumes of a long-ago-incinerated breakfast. Tuesday was six with Beat, and for two of those miles I was downright dizzy. "What a hopeless carb burner I am," I thought. "But at the same time, it's not really that much worse without carbs."

Beat is still considering the experiment of walking unsupported to Nome, nearly a month on only the supplies he can carry in his sled. It's a baffling goal but also a potentially valuable learning experience toward becoming an expeditioner, for which Beat has aspirations. This has led to multiple discussions about high-calorie density foods — such as pounds and pounds of peanut butter — and the art of burning fat for fuel. Like most people I carry plenty of this around, but consider fat a terrible energy source for strenuous exercise. It's like looking at a pit of smoldering coals and saying, "You know what would really get this fire going — a huge, wet log!" Body fat or dietary fat — it's all slow-burning and sluggish.

Still, becoming a more efficient fat burner — or at least developing more confidence in what my body can already do — has the potential to enhance my own long-distance experiences. In the case of the Iditarod, I could lighten my load by subsisting on more energy-dense foods, and I potentially wouldn't have to stop and eat as often — always an intimidating chore in the deep cold. My mouth wouldn't get as torn up by constantly gnawing on frozen sugary foods, and the slow burn might aid in keeping my body temperature more consistent. It's a little too late in the game to switch to a low-carb plan. But at the same time, I would benefit from slightly curbing my carb dependency — if only to get a feel and an appreciation for running on fumes, which, for better or worse, is likely to become my default state in the Iditarod.

On Wednesday I set out a little earlier than usual, only about five hours after breakfast instead of eight, which, — after I'd defined my early-week runs as goal-oriented, rather than simply being too lazy to make lunch — felt like cheating. I laced up my Hokas and filled up a 20-ounce bottle with water, stuffed a camera and wet wipe in the hand-hold pocket, and set out. The plan was six miles. Dark clouds settled over Black Mountain as a mist of light rain wafted on the breeze. It's getting to the point of drought here in California that I tend to become irrationally excited about "bad" weather and irrationally grumpy about "good" weather. By the cut-off,  I was buzzing with happy hormones and feeling a strong desire to chase those dark clouds up the mountain. Instead of turning left, I continued climbing.

The grade steepened, and even as these undefined urges drove me forward, a haze settled over my brain. This is the real benefit of a bonk run; there's less glucose to fuel my over-active imagination, and all of the little nagging voices and unsettling or distracting thoughts begin to lose steam. What remains, interestingly, is persistent forward motion, as though that were survival instinct — "keep going." Fog obscured the top of the mountain, and I kept going.

My little water bottle was almost empty by the time I reached the summit,. The dark fog had lifted, but small pellets of rain still drove through the wind. I was only wearing a T-shirt and knee-length tights and it was fairly cold, plus I was thirsty, but still I opted to skip the half-mile spur to the backpacker camp and continue the long way down the mountain. The nearest water fountain was eight miles away. "Sometimes it's good to see how far we can go with just our shoes and our water bottle," I thought. "Or, you know, a sled filled with forty pounds of survival gear."

I enjoyed the descent immensely. There was a kind of lightness to my body, a fluidity to my movement, a freedom to simply run unburdened by anything but an empty water bottle. Hunger gnawed at my stomach and thirst trickled into my patchy thoughts — but there was no immediate danger and thus no immediate concern. We can't go forever without food and water, but in most situations, we can go a lot longer than we think.

I filled up my bottle at the farm and drank with deep satisfaction — I wasn't dehydrated yet, but just thirsty enough to truly appreciate the water. Ten minutes later, the run came to an abrupt end at my car, 15 miles after I started. It was somewhat disappointing, because I felt like I could keep going and wanted to.

I did feel slightly guilty for spending an unplanned two hours and 45 minutes of a Wednesday afternoon, just running — but at the same time, grateful for the ability to do it. "Yes, it is amazing the places one can go with shoes and a water bottle," I thought. That kind of fluid, seemingly effortless motion — rolling over terrain like waves in the ocean — is the reward of not getting too weighed down by the process. 


  1. What constitutes an expedition? I'm curious what Beat has on the horizon. The first moments of a bonk have always felt so sublime to me. It's too bad that feeling isn't sustainable.

    1. Beat is giving very serious thought to an unsupported, out-and-back walk to the South Pole in the next few years. He a partner have an idea to travel fast(er) and light(er) than current expedition dogma stipulates, and of course have to take into account the risks that go along with this. And of course, funding is always the biggest barrier to such an expedition. He doesn't want to spend vast amounts of time begging for sponsorships (and I don't blame him) so he has to consider how much expense he's willing to shoulder and whether he can garner corporate support. I feel uneasy about the ambitions of their plan, having read lots of Antarctic literature over the years, but I'm supportive.

      And I agree with you about the sublime moments during a bonk. To me, it feels like an express version of the way I often feel in the midst of a very long and hard endurance effort — somewhat detached from myself, watching the world around me through a new plane of existence. Of course, the body is all to quick to start sending the grumpy and panic "need to eat soon" signals, because it's greedy like that.

  2. I hear Dale and Wayne Stetina, multi-time olympians and national champions in road cycling back in the 70's and 80's, used to do long rides with no food in order to deliberately bonk and get their bodies accustomed to operating in fat burning mode, as at the end of a 125 mile road race. Judging from their results back then, it worked! I've heard of some doing the same kind of thing with fluids too get used to being dehydrated - not so sure about that one.

  3. Seems like Mike Morton, Zach Bitter, and the guys at Vespa nutrition may be on to something...

  4. Generation UCAN has a carb/protein drink (vanilla and chocolate) that you may want to look into.


Feedback is always appreciated!